Ex-D.C. contracts director claims wrongful termination

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; 7:25 PM

A former District contracts director claims in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that he was wrongfully fired by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi after he refused to yield to pressure to cancel a contract won by a firm co-owned by a friend of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Eric W. Payne, who was fired in January 2009, cites whistle-blower protection under city law, saying he was demoted and later fired when Gandhi found out that he had gone to two investigative agencies in city government to report the pressure.

A spokeswoman for Gandhi did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

The lottery contract became an issue in 2008 when LTE, a joint venture between gaming giant GTech and local business NewTech Games, lost its nearly 25-year contract to W2I, a joint venture between another gaming giant Intralot and fledgling firm W2Tech.

Both firms had ties to city officials.

W2Tech was started by Alaka Williams and her husband, Warren C. Williams Jr., who met Fenty years ago in an intramural basketball league, as well as through his father, who was in the same fraternity as Fenty. Williams had also been a partner in Banneker Ventures, the firm owned by another Fenty friend and fraternity brother now embroiled in probes into parks construction contracts.

NewTech Games was co-owned by P. Leonard Manning, who had ties to several council members. Brett Greene, who served as Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's campaign finance chairman in his 2006 bid, lobbied council members on Manning's behalf.

Payne, also a member of the fraternity, said in the lawsuit: "On or about May 2, 2008, Plaintiff met with Gandhi, a senior elected official, and other CFO personnel to discuss the lottery contract. In this meeting, Plaintiff was expressly asked if he could 'get rid of Warren Williams Jr. (the minority partner of Intralot) and replace him with Leonard Manning (the minority partner of GTECH).' Both Plaintiff and the Acting Executive Director of the Lottery, stated again it was legally impermissible to alter the contract selection and award process."

The lawsuit does not identify the senior elected official or personnel present. Payne, of Burke, was later told by an investigator that "a criminal probe had been launched against him," according to the lawsuit. He expressed "shock and dismay" and considered it retaliatory action, according to the lawsuit.

Last year, a new bidding process and award went through the CFO's office, the Fenty administration and the council. Intralot, with a different partner, won the contract.

Manning said Friday that he never received special treatment.

Williams said Payne is "smart and credible."

"I always found Eric to be a very nice gentleman. I wish him the best," he said.

Payne is represented by well-known civil rights lawyer Donald Temple.

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